Some Tips On Tags

For my fiction workshop class I submitted a short story entitled “Bastogne.” As I’m sure you may be able to infer from the title, the story takes place in Bastogne during World War II. It’s about two American soldiers. It’s about friends. And it’s about loss, regret, and guilt. The class really enjoyed it, which was nice to hear. They had a few minor suggestions, most of which I agreed with. However, one of them I didn’t. The class suggested that I use an exclamation point when people are screaming/yelling etc. But that’s now how I write. I guess it’s more of a stylistic choice, but I think it helps to make the read stronger.

When I write, I always include the tag shouted, yelled, screamed, roared, or a few select others, but I always end the quote with a comma, never an exclamation point. I like to let the context of the situation make the reader “feel” the scream. If I just put an exclamation point at the end then it just tells the reader that someone is yelling. Now, I suppose using the tag “yelled” or “screamed” does the same. But I guess it’s just different for me.

However, some people are extremists when it comes to tags. I’ve heard of writers who will only use “said” with their dialogue tag no matter what. They say that “said” is so common that most readers see it sort of like a period and it helps makes things smoother. I agree with this to a certain degree, but I think it depends on the situation in the story. But I do have a very limited selection of words I will use.

Words I use in dialogue tags:

  • Said
  • Replied
  • Whispered
  • Asked
  • Shouted
  • Yelled
  • Screamed
  • Roared
  • Lied (Although this one I almost never use)

Words I refuse to use in dialogue tags

  • Anything ending in -ly
    • “he said fervently”
    • “She said softly/quietly”
  • Any obnoxious synonyms for yelled
    • Exclaimed
    • Exaggerated
    • Belted
  • Questioned
  • Interrogated

I’m sure you get the point. Having clean dialogue tags makes things that much smoother for the reader. Similar with adverbs. As Stephen King says, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” I absolutely (Irony, ha!) refuse to use them anymore. I’d much rather show how someone is is quietly walking than just saying he or she is quietly walking. For example: “He crept across the courtyard.” Or “She walked with silent steps.” The latter example may seem a little more drawn out, but I think it adds a lot to the action.

Do you use exclamation points? What dialogue tags do you use? Which ones do you prefer to read? Do you have any examples of good or bad uses of dialogue tags?


5 thoughts on “Some Tips On Tags

  1. I use a lot of the same tags. I also try to avoid -ly, but there are times when I indulge in it. I want my dialogs to read as natural as possible. Sometimes it works out. Other times not so much.

  2. My creative writing tutor when I was just starting out advised me to never use exclamation points or if I must, to use them sparingly. I wasn’t happy with the idea to begin with (this was when i was just starting out and i still had a beginner’s mentality when you don’t realise how little you know) and then I began to understand why. I agree it’s much more effective to have the actual dialogue and it’s tags let the reader understand the nature of the speech. The reader wants to see and feel what’s happening, not be told. Same idea applies to adverbs and adjectives. My writing was death-by-adverbs when I was starting out. I’ve managed to ween myself off them somewhat but I still see them cropping up like mushrooms when I’m not paying attention. You are right, it is the two golden rules of less is more and show don’t tell.

  3. I try to leave dialogue tags off completely, I use an action or make the speaker obvious. This doesn’t always work and my editor slips a ‘said’ back in here and there. I will occasionally whisper or call, but not much else. I wish I could perfect the art of no dialogue tags at all!

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